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Being empowered to lead: The women in northern Argentina who are finding their voice

Posted on: March 14, 2019 4:53 PM
The Deborahs and a bus they hired to get to parenting meetings.
Photo Credit: Diocese of Northern Argentina

Women are playing a key role in reconciliation in remote areas of northern Argentina, as this feature, which was first published in the June 2017 edition of Anglican World magazine, explains.

Mision La Paz is a village in the Chaco forest of northern Argentina. It sits on the banks of the River Picomayo, which forms the border with Paraguay. When the gospel reached this remote area, there were a number of warring tribes – Wichi, Chorote, Chulupi – as well as hostile white settlers. A mission was started which incorporated all these groups and a few years ago a group of women, from the different ethnic groups, took the initiative to start visiting other villages and sharing their faith as Bishop Nick Drayson of the diocese of northern Argentina explains.

“They took the name ‘the Deborahs’ as a reminder that sometimes they can’t wait for the men to take the lead! The local area is still one of much conflict, especially over land rights. The Anglican church has been deeply involved in advocacy in support of the indigenous movement ‘Lhaka Honhat’ (Our Land) which has managed to broker a deal between white settlers and the government to agree on a shared use of the area of forest along the river and inland which is their traditional hunting ground. The Deborahs major on supporting families, which are under great threat as their culture is eroded.”

The Deborahs are just one example of local women finding their voice and organising themselves into action. More broadly across the diocese, the Mothers’ Union has recently enjoyed dramatic growth. AMARE (the Argentine branch of the Mothers’ Union) has grown from 50 members to more than 1,000 members in a few short years.

“AMARE (which stands for Anglican Women’s Group Renewed in the Spirit) has given a voice and an identity to women in a culture which does not value them highly, as well as equipping them to put love into action in practical ways,” says Bishop Nick.

Susana, a Toba woman who recently became a member, described the change she has experienced: “I used to stand at the back of church so I could get away quickly, and never wanted to take part. But now I am involved in praying for others and occasionally leading, since I have experienced God’s love for myself.”

Bishop Nick, whose wife Catherine helps co-ordinate AMARE, adds, “It has been so important for the women to discover a ‘rule of life’ which involves not just meeting together but both practical action, and biblical preparation.”

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Founding women of AMARE: Catherine Le Tissier, Mirna Paolo, and Alberta Cristano.
Photo: Church Mission Society

Catherine says that as AMARE met the local women, they learned about their concerns for their families. “We saw the reality: the lack of parental leadership and their confusion as they faced so many dramatic changes. Their once well established, simpler way of life has been eroded by western influences, leaving them on the margins of society. For generations these hunter-gatherers lived relatively untouched in the Chaco forests. However, today many have moved to towns and live off government subsidies. There are few jobs and little incentive to work, and this often leads to alcoholism. Those who remain are threatened by deforestation as the agricultural industry clears massive pieces of land to grow soya.

“Western education occupies so much of the children’s time that parents rarely teach life skills to their children, such as hunting or fishing, although some mothers do pass on artisanal skills. The towns are home to other problems such as racially-motivated violence, drug use and prostitution. Whereas the indigenous culture valued family time in the evenings, the availability of electricity means television and internet have replaced this. Parents are finding themselves de-skilled and with little to fall back on.”

In AMARE, women are encouraged to make a commitment to practical ways of showing love in the family, church and community. Some women visit and pray for the sick, minister in other communities and share with their families what they have learned. Some are involved in children’s or youth work and some younger people read the Bible to the elderly. Many offer hospitality. Some groups help their pastor or clean their church. Some are involved in helping those with marital or family problems and some groups have raised funds for building or repairing a church or visitors’ room.

Catherine has watched as women have found a new voice: “AMARE gives them a sense of belonging, purpose and identity in Christ, as members of the Anglican Church and also of the MU worldwide,” she says. “AMARE brings the women of the four different indigenous groups and the Spanish speakers together, uniting people across the diocese. We are seeing a shift from them being the receivers, the poor, the oppressed, to being women with something to give.”

There are certainly many challenges – with 150 churches spread out over an area the size of France, all wanting visits.

“Many of these villages are off the beaten track; when it rains, the roads become impassable, and in the dry season the sand makes progress impossible,” says Catherine. “Often, it is just plain risky. When a truck full of women and I visited a local Toba community, a mighty storm and heavy flooding meant that I alone could not have got us out. The prospects of either sleeping on the church floor for the next week or getting stuck trying to get home were not attractive. We were so grateful that God had a back-up plan in the shape of a local Toba lorry driver who fought the elements to get us home.”

Catherine says that because of AMARE, there is a quiet revolution taking place. “The churches have tended to wait for mission partners to fulfil this role of visiting, encouraging and teaching but with AMARE this is changing as local women are becoming empowered to lead.”